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Sight Reading

I. Intro

Because of the complexity of the fretboard, learning to sight-read on the guitar requires a disciplined approach. In this article I'll discuss the approach that worked well for me and has worked well for many of my students.

A. sight-reading vs. reading study
Before you can sight-read, you must be able to read. So there is a difference between sight-reading and reading study. I'll give a brief overview of each, and then get into the details

1. reading study defined
Reading study is the part of your practice session where you take the music apart: find the notes on the fretboard, decide on fingerings, count out the rhythms, and so forth. You might need to look up the meaning of the expression marks or the articulation marks. You might try a difficult passage at an extremely slow tempo.

2. sight-reading defined
In sight-reading, you make one pass through the music at a steady tempo. You play as many of the notes as you can, and if you find a passage you can't manage, you skip it, but keep your place in the music.

II. The approach

A. choosing material
You need two piles of books: reading-study books and sight-reading books

B. Reading schedule
Schedule time for reading-study and sight-reading in your regular practice sessions.

Fifteen minutes a day of sight-reading is enough to insure steady progress.

Reading-study is slow, thoughtful, detailed work, so you will need to allow a more time for it. Thirty minutes a day should yield some results, but an hour is better.

1. warm up with reading scales, etc.
2. continue to add to your pile of Sight-reading books
3. continue to add to your pile of Reading study books

III. Reading study

A. Analyze

1. count out rhythms
Before you read through a piece, look over the rhythms and see if there are any that might give you trouble. Count them out; tap them out while counting out loud. Play them on one note, to work out the pick direction (down on the downbeats, up on the upbeats).

2. Try various fingerings
Find one position where the piece can be played, if possible. If not, break the piece into sections that are playable in different positions, and look for ways to move between them.

3. Analyze
The better you understand the music, the easier it will be for you to read. Analyze the harmony. Look for arpeggios, chord tones, approach notes.

B. Work on difficult passages.

1. Get the difficult measure right, in time. Can be slow

2. Start a measure or two before the difficult passage, and play through up to a measure or two after it. You can play as slowly as you like, but keep good time.

C. Now read through the whole piece.
If you make a mistake, just make a mental note of where it was, and keep going. Then go back and work on the place where you made the mistake.

IV. Sight-Reading

A. Pick a piece that you are pretty sure you can play correctly from beginning to end.

B. Don't stop, Don't slow down. Don't go back to fix mistakes.

C. If you stumble over a passage, just keep counting, look at the notes, but forget about playing them, for now.
Make a mental note of where the passage is. There might be rhythm you haven't seen before, an articulation marking or expressive term you're not sure of. After you've reached the end of the piece, take a few seconds to jot the difficult passage down, and later it will become part of your reading study.
1. Don't ignore dynamics, articulation.
2. Notice arpeggios, chord tones, etc.

V. Review and revise.

A. Revisit pieces.
Look at passages you had skipped or missed. Try different fingerings, different picking.

VI. Reading 'live' - at rehearsals and on gigs.

A. Jot it down
Just as you did in sight-reading practice sessions, make a note of difficult passages. If you are going to be able to take the music home to practice, just note the piece and the starting measure of the difficult passage. If you can't take the music home, take out some music paper and write down the passage. This material will now become part of your reading-study.

VII. Conclusion

A. A reader's work is never done.
Developing reading skills is an ongoing pursuit. There's never a point at which the task is complete. But there are rewards all along the way. Each month you'll find that there are pieces you can sight-read that were beyond you a month before. You'll find that the mechanics of reading will become second nature to you, and you'll not only be reading, but interpreting.
There's a great deal of pleasure in taking little drops of black ink and turning them into music.


About the Author
Steve has been performing throughout New England for more than thirty years. He has worked as a sideman with artists ranging from Chicago blues singer Little Walter to song stylists Al Martino and Anna-Maria Alberghetti. During his twenty-five years of teaching guitar at Berklee College of Music, Steve developed his pick-and-finger style playing, borrowing from both jazz and classical music. Visit Steve's website at www.frogstoryrecords.com

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